Mental Space: The Final Frontier

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Remember the storm I so rhapsodized last week? Well, it lost its charm.

After many a liqueur-laden snowshake, the reality hit. My kids’ more than two-week vacation was extended. The Albuquerque Public School system couldn’t handle the white stuff and cancelled three — yes, three — extra days of classes. Sure, the snowfall was an unprecedented event, but, hey, I NEED TO THINK!

I have wonderful children. They are not the problem.

It’s all in me.

When my kids are home (or my hubby, for that matter), even if they’re sitting quietly reading, my ears are cocked to listen for potential crises. Maybe it’s a mom thing. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it’s very difficult to pal around with the Muse when kids ask for snacks, the house is adrift in strewn toys, and the theme song from Arthur wafts through the air yet again. Yeah, I can close the office door, but that only lasts for so long. My kids are still in the conversation-through-the-bathroom-door stage.

Paul Guyot and others in our community have written marvelous pieces on self-discipline. Some people I know get up at 4 am to work. I’ve done it myself. But, when my kids are home, I need to be coherent. I need enough of my iffy sleep to respond to fights, broken dishes, and the ups and downs of home life.

I need to be able to drive to the store without hallucinating.

Frankly, if I got up consistently at 4 am, I’d need to go to bed at 8. Ladies and gentlemen — that’s simply not going to happen. Writer though I be, my family comes first. I can’t be a recluse, though sometimes I dream of doing just that.

Plus, I tried the 4 am technique to slam out THE SOCORRO BLAST. You know what happened? That first draft had the creativity of a chunk of stucco. That’s why I had to rewrite the whole damn thing.

So, it’s not productivity  . . . it’s the product. What I need is mental privacy, an empty house, a time when I’m not responsible for anyone or anything but my imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. I am writing every day.  I am showing up at the computer and slogging through pages of text. But, this forcing isn’t nurturing the story I need to tell.

How can I find a way to create a cocoon of mental quiet to allow myself the clarity and freedom to think?

Organization isn’t the issue here. It’s something more elusive.

I need a shroud of impenetrability, of undisturbed psychic space, to let the story unfold in my mind. This isn’t a question of being precious about my craft; it’s about finding a way to nourish creativity.

I know this is only a temporary set-back . . . sort of. The kids should be in school soon. But, I’ve been writing through motherhood long enough to know: Life intrudes. My spouse works full time out of the house. I’m the go-to person for all family events.

I AM NOT complaining.

I AM NOT looking for suggestions on scheduling.

What I want to know is:

How do you create, nurture and maintain the mental space for your imagination to thrive — especially if you’re stretched between demanding realities?

Any advice?


Prepare to be amused by book biz definitions:

part 1

part 2

New blog:  Join me in congratulating Jeff Cohen and Deni Dietz — two Murderati alums — who have put together a new blog that opens its virtual doors today. Stop by and say, "Hi."

25 thoughts on “Mental Space: The Final Frontier

  1. Keith

    I have two-year-old twins. My options are:

    Write when they’re asleep instead of spending time with spouse.


    Sit out on the street in the cold.

    I’ve done each of these in the last week, though sitting in the cold is only good for the pen-and-pad stuff, like plotting.

  2. pari noskin taichert

    Keith,Tell me about sitting in a coffeeshop. To me, it would seem to be more effort to create that mental space . . . but, maybe, the anonymity (sp?) would do it by itself.

    I’m really intrigued. I do have a laptop and have considered this option.

    Boy do I hear you about the time trade at night — again, not much of an option if you’re committed to a long-term marriage.

    On the street? In the cold? Yeah, I’ve done that, too.

    Showers seem to be very effective for thought because they’re noisy — unlike baths where I can still hear everything going on in the house.

  3. Guyot

    For this DWG…

    it’s not getting up at some unGodly hour every day, but it’s doing the work at roughly THE SAME TIME EVERY DAY. Meaning, a schedule.

    Maybe it’s not 4am. Maybe it’s 10:30am until 1pm, and then again from 8pm to 10pm. Or whatever.

    But I’ve found, and truly believe the key to discipline is routine. Training your brain, like athletes train their bodies with workout routines.

    When I get flowing in a schedule (like now, it’s 9am to 4pm, M-F) my writing gets better, and my productivity increases.

    I’m also in a much better mood. One of the myriad of reasons it sucks being married to me is that my mood is directly related to my writing. The more I’m writing, the happier I am. Generally.

    Now, as to space… I have a very nice home office I’ve created. My inspiring movie posters on the walls, my photos from past productions I’ve written, my dart board, my music, books, globe, Hemingway quote, everything for a perfect writing space.

    But I also have two toddlers.

    So, the home office sits like a display model of what could be. I can’t work there when they’re around because I cannot say no to them. Ever.

    So, I write 90% of my stuff in public. Starbucks and other indy coffee houses, as well as Border’s, and some of my favorite restaurants – who now know me well enough that I have my own table, and am allowed to take up a four-top for two and half hours, so long as I tip well.

    Always tip well. Even if you don’t have the dough. Today’s waiters are tomorrow’s editors. Or something like that.

    The amazing SJ Rozan thinks I’m nuts. She needs absolute silence to write. That would drive me insane. See, writing is such a lonely and solitary endeavor that any chance I get to be around other humans, I’ll take it.

    Coffee houses and restaurants are great. There is a built-in white noise factor, coupled with – you never know when the exact character you’re trying to come up with will walk through the door. Just don’t be like Alex and run up and sleep with him! I kid because I love. I love Alex.

    Anyway, I like having the world around me when I work. And the way I keep from being totally distracted is by popping on my Bose noiseless headphones my wife gave me, scrolling to my iTunes playlist I made for the project I’m writing, and disappearing into another world.

    A world where I’m slim and trim and interesting enough that women like Alex want to sleep with me because they think it’ll help their writing.

  4. Keith

    I can’t quite bring myself to open the laptop in a diner–too selfconscious, though this may have as much to do with my day gig eating up the hours when the diner would be emptier–but at Starbucks, they expect you to sit there for four hours on a single $2 espresso. If you look at the drinks as drinks, they’re expensive. If you look at them as table rent, they’re dirt cheap.

    The anonymous clatter factor (or white noise, as Guyot said) is part of what works for me. (And I have the Bose headphones too.) However, once you’re a regular, people feel free to interrupt your work time with chitchat. Rehearse and repeat after me:

    “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really have to work.”

    You being a girl and all, the big-sad-regretful eyes will help sell it. When I try that, I just look like a horny basset hound.

    There’s a Dunkin going in on Queens Boulevard, which may solve my big problem: My local Starbucks closes at 10.

    If you’re not sure where you can go, check out the message boards at Here’s my recent post there:

  5. Louiseure

    Laura Lippman is a fan of the writing-in-a-coffeeshop routine, too. I’m not sure I could do it. I like silence too much.

    And Pari, those Book Biz definitions you linked to are a howl!

  6. pari noskin taichert

    Paul and Keith,I’m beginning to get the appeal of public spaces — though I have so much noise in my regular life that I’m not sure I could concentrate at a Starbucks. The temptation to people watch would be enormous.

    Re: the routine ideaYou might have something there, Paul. I might give that a shot.

    And, even if I wanted to follow Alex’s fascinating way of getting to know new characters, I doubt my husband would tolerate it for long.

    Ah, well . . .

  7. billie

    Well, welcome to my world… 🙂 I am so eager to read the comments that flow in on this topic.

    When I started seriously writing the first novel in 1999, I couldn’t write at home for the very reasons you describe.

    I wrote the first draft of the first novel every Thursday night for a year sitting at one particular table in an indie coffee house. 6 p.m. ’til 10 p.m.

    That white noise factor applied and it worked. But then I started editing the thing, and suddenly I started getting interrupted by people asking me questions. The noise started filtering into my quiet space and I couldn’t work there any longer.

    Now, I HAVE an office. I see clients there, and that first year, the “noise” of the clients – not literally, but figuratively – was too intense.

    The second year and on until 2005 I became quite good at writing in my client office. I finished book one and did nearly all of book 2 there. At one point when I got the first agent and it looked like we might get a sale, I let my client load go way down and I actually used the office primarily for writing. It was amazing – I could walk in and sit at the desk and the words would just flow. I generally wrote three nights a week and one big chunk of sat. or sunday, depending on our family schedule.

    Last year when we moved to our farm, I finally got a ROOM OF MY OWN to write in! I was so excited – but it has been a mixed blessing. I have written the first draft of book 3 here, and I actually think it’s the best book yet. But I’ve had to struggle to get used to the interruptions.

    I have 2 children and we homeschool, so they are here during the day. Even at night when dad is home, I’m the one everyone comes to for the answers to everything! It’s hard getting focused and then being interrupted.

    I don’t quite know how to get more fluid with my writing time here.

    The one thing that helps is I go to Weymouth maybe four times/year for 5 or so days each and work nonstop with breaks to eat and hang out with the other writers, if there are any there. And I take little weekend research trips solo where I can inhabit the places and use the evenings to write.

    It works well – but with the horses it’s hard for me to get away like that.

    It is SO true that when I write regularly and feel it’s flowing well, my mood is better. It becomes painfully obvious to all of us when I need a writing retreat.

    If I could figure out how to turn daily life into what I get out of the retreat time, I’d be thrilled.


  8. pari noskin taichert

    Louise,Weren’t those definitions a hoot? A friend sent them to me and I couldn’t believe how horribly, painfully, and funnily accurate they are.

    How’d you like my problem with font size? I couldn’t fix it, alas.

  9. May

    Write in a really noisy place. It’s not reverse psychology exactly. I just find that if it’s so noisy that you need to turn inward, you can find that mental space.

    But mostly, I do like Guyot. I try to keep to a routine.

  10. Deni Dietz

    Poor Pari. Been there, done that. I only wish, when my kids were little, that I’d had stock in Cheerios.

    Then there was the Thanksgiving when my son Jon said he’d make the turkey, since I was so busy writing. A few minutes later he tiptoed into my office and asked where the paprika was. I scooted into the kitchen, pointed to the shelf and said, “There it is. That red stuff. Just cover the skin and pop the bird into the oven.”

    Have you ever tasted turkey saturated with cayenne pepper?


  11. Keith

    The first six months of my boys’ lives, I was so determined not to stop writing that my regular location was a folding TV tray in our narrow little apartment kitchen, next to the catbox.

    I got a lot done, but once the worst of the sleep deprivation ended, it was as though my enemy evaporated. That degree of determination got harder to maintain.

  12. Elaine Flinn

    The book biz definitions were painfully funny. I’m printing them out to remind myself I’m not paranoid. 🙂

    Guyot is right – routine is the key. Mine varies depending on where I am in a book -but it’s always at least four hours a day- and that’s generally in the afternoon or evening.

    And speaking of Guyot – honey, you’d be interesting if you had two heads…right, ladies?

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    To G: – what do you mean, TRY?

    To the rest of you – I have no idea how you do it at all, with kids. I cannot imagine. I don’t want to imagine. Or rather, I imagined it enough soon enough that I’ve never wanted them. Adopt a teenager later, maybe, but my own? No.

    But those of us who don’t have kids are perfectly capable of creating enough of our own drama to keep us from writing. 90% of writing, to me, is trying to get out of it. So maybe you should look at it this way. At least you’re doing something magnificent with that 90% non-writing time, as opposed to us childless ones, who do all of that non-writing thing anyway, but with none of the excuse.

  14. pari noskin taichert

    Billie,You homeschool? Holy cow. You never get a break unless you leave your farm completely. Though, I’ve got to admit your little forays to Weymouth sound like heaven.

    Still, I’m grateful when my kids are IN school.

    May,I think the noise comment is very interesting. I might try that — to see if my imagination flies when forced inward.

    And Deni?Cayenne turkey sounds kind of good . . . in an odd New Mexican way.

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Keith,I know what you mean about determination. There have been times when I’ve just shut out the entire world and worked in the moments I could eke out. Now, it’s more difficult. Perhaps that’s because it’s not the same sense of urgency. We know we’ll continue writing and that we’ll finish our projects. We know too much.

    Elaine,Routine? Wow. What a concept.Believe me, I’ve been trying. Maybe it’ll be easier in the coming days.

    Alex,Thanks for that nice spin on the 90%. I’m feeling a little better already.

    . . . back to the manuscripts.

  16. JT Ellison

    Pari, I’m a silence kind of person. I can’t do the coffeeshop thing. I like my office, or my laptop in a chair, and music in the background. But I have that choice, so it’s not fair for me to speculate what I’d do if I didn’t, you know?Let us know what you find works, I’m sure there’s a lot of people looking for new methods!

  17. pari noskin taichert

    Actually, J.T., everyone can contribute to this discussion.

    To me, beyond the routine is this whole nurturing our creativity, listening to our imaginations and letting them fly.

    Perhaps your life situation right now permits a lot of that. I’ll be curious to know if it changes once your debut novel comes out and the masses clamour at your door for attention .

  18. Iden Ford

    A lot of my wife’s working out her stuff takes place nowhere near the computer. In fact it is when she goes to the park in the morning with the dogs, she likes to work out a lot of creative challenges that she faces. Then she comes back and makes sure she notes these thoughts, if she cannot write at that very moment. I feel that walking is a wonderful way to engage both the left and right side of your brain. When you have both lobes working together you will feel, and are, more creative. Peter Robinson says that in order to be a writer, you have to get your rear end in a chair in front of a computer. While that is true, your prep time, or creative time, is equally important. The thing is to find what works for you and do it often. I go for at least a 40 minute run per day and get lost in my thoughts. Regarding snow, you got it, we don’t. Toronto has had record warm temperatures in the last two months. No snow in sight. You can keep it down there for us this year please. january is my least favourite month.Happy new year and good luck with all this, I know it is very important as I live with a writer who faces similar challenges.

  19. pari noskin taichert

    Iden,Great to hear from you.

    I think that was what I was getting at: the creative prep work (I hadn’t thought of it quite in those terms. Thank you.).

    Just thinking in those terms gives me a kind of mental freedom.

    As to the snow: it’s turning to slush and ice, but with our blue skies it still remains pretty for the most part. I’d heard that several parts of the North and East were warm. A friend in DC tells me the cherry trees are starting to bud. In Germany, they don’t have the ice to shrivel the grapes to make their magnificent ice wine.

    We’ll take the moisture, the precipitation. It’ll help cut our fire risk this Spring/Summer.

  20. billie

    You know, what Iden said is so true… Alex, this came up at your blog awhile back, didn’t it? How to use the stuck times to get out and do something that sets things back in motion.

    THAT’s the part I love about writing here at home. When it flows, it’s perfect – writing in my garret, getting to a place where the flow stops, walking out to the barn and riding my horse, which totally opens things up again. That part is magic.

    It’s balancing everything else on the platter that gets tricky – kids, house, chores, etc.

    At this point in my life the kids are old enough that they are incredibly independent with both their studies and their fun. I spend a great deal of time with them, but it’s not like I have toddlers climbing on top of refrigerators any more! 🙂

    Otoh, it feels like a 3-ring circus here a lot of the time. Saturday the rural route postwoman beeped the horn at the end of our driveway to alert me to a delivery, didn’t wait long enough for me to get out there, and then drove off with the medication I needed to inject my horse.

    Today, she took the slip I supposedly signed so she could leave the package and drove off with both package AND slip. Sigh.

    The electricity went out.

    It was MATH DAY. Ugh. And I thought I was DONE with factoring and algebra!

    However, here it is my favorite writing time and dh has what my daughter refers to as “jambalina” cooking, and all my chores are done. It’s just me and this laptop and a little bourbon and coke. 🙂


  21. Sue Trowbridge

    When I visited Albuquerque last fall, I spent a day working at the Flying Star Cafe, and visited it several other times (including once with Pari!). I miss that place… I still have the take-out menu on my desk. I had thought Albuquerque would be an ideal place to live but now that I know it snows there, I’m not so sure! As a Michigan girl, I’ve been there, done that…

  22. pari noskin taichert

    Billie,I’m feeling better after this discussion. The kids are sitting in the front room reading. The house is relatively quiet. I’m not trying to get work done on the novel right now, but I can enjoy the email/blog aspect quite a bit. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation. It was truly a pleasure.

    SUE!It no way snows like it does in Michigan. I lived there for 9 years. No. No.

    Ah, Flying Star is the place to see and be seen in ABQ.

  23. Iden Ford

    It seems so exotic to me that people would live in New Mexico. I visualize this huge desert landscape with no green or water in sight. But I am a north easterner so I tend to think about our own environment and landscape as the norm. I suppose if I lived in, and grew up in Saskatchewan, I would see lots of flatland as the norm. I did find the landscape of Arizona quite appealing, but there were mountains there as well. I assume the terrain is similar in New Mexico? Oddly enough, people face the same internal challenges no matter where they live. That is why this discussion is so interesting.


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